Kiranjit Ahluwalia: The woman who set her husband on fire

Kiranjit Ahluwalia Image copyright Martin Eberlen
Image caption Kiranjit Ahluwalia’s case attracted international attention

On a spring evening in 1989, Deepak Ahluwalia pressed a hot iron to his wife’s face, her hair gripped tightly in his fist.

The iron burned her skin as she struggled in his grasp, leaving a mark on her face.

Kiranjit Ahluwalia said the incident – after what she says was a decade of abuse at her husband’s hands – tipped her over the edge.

“I couldn’t sleep, I was crying so badly. I was in pain, physically and emotionally,” she told the BBC, 30 years on.

“I wanted to hit him. I wanted to hit him the way he hit me. I wanted to hit him so he could feel the same pain I was feeling. I never thought further. My brain had totally stopped.”

That night, while he slept in bed, she doused her husband’s feet in petrol and set him alight. She grabbed her son and ran out of the house.

“I thought, I’m going to burn his feet, so he won’t be able to run after me. I will give him a scar so he will always remember in the end what his wife did to him. So every time he sees his feet with a scar, he will remember me.”

Kiranjit maintains she did not mean to kill her husband.

But 10 days later, Deepak died from his injuries.

In December that year, Kiranjit was convicted of his murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Image caption Kiranjit, pictured in 1992

Kiranjit grew up in Punjab, northern India.

Despite both her parents dying by the time she was 16, she said her childhood was always very loving. The youngest of nine siblings, she was doted upon by her older brothers and sisters.

Towards her late teenage years, however, pressure to marry began to build.

“I never wanted to get married so I went to my sister in Canada. I didn’t want to settle down in India, to get married and have children like my sister-in-laws had. I wanted to work, earn money, live my own life,” she says.

But it was something she had to accept after her sister in England found a match.

“He came to see me in Canada. We talked for about five minutes and I said yes. I knew that I couldn’t escape, I had to get married. So that was it. My freedom gone.”

Recalling her first impressions of her husband, she said he was “very good-looking, handsome and charming” but she never knew when he would snap. One minute he was as good as gold, the next he was horrible.

Gold ring

She said the abuse began the first day they were married.

“If he got angry, that was it,” she said. “Shouting, abusing, throwing things, pushing me around, threatening me with knives. So many times, he would strangle me. I’d end up with bruises and unable to speak for a few days.

“I remember it was his birthday and I worked overtime and I bought a gold ring for him as a birthday present. That same week, he lost his temper and with that ring he broke my tooth. He punched me in the face.”

Kiranjit says every time she tried to leave, her husband would find her, bring her back and physically beat her.

Five years into their marriage, the couple visited India where Kiranjit told her older brother about the abuse she had suffered. Her family was initially upset, but after an apology from her husband they convinced her to return home.

A few months later, back in England, the abuse began again.

Deepak began to have extra-marital affairs and demanded money from his wife – which led to the argument before the fire.

“I couldn’t escape, couldn’t get a divorce. There was family pressure to have a kid. Everyone said if you have a child, maybe he’ll change. He’ll become a responsible man.

“He never changed. He just got worse.”

Image caption Kiranjit’s life was turned into a film, starring Indian actress Aishwarya Rai

When Kiranjit stood trial for the murder of her husband, she says the abuse she suffered was disregarded, and she felt angry upon hearing the sentence.

The prosecution suggested she was motivated by jealousy due to her husband’s affairs and the gap between the argument and her retaliation was long enough for her to calm down and think rationally about her actions.

“I had full confidence in British law. I thought the British law is a modern law and they would understand me, how much I suffered. They never understood how many years I suffered.”

Once in prison, Kiranjit says she felt free, away from her husband.

She played badminton, took English classes and even co-wrote her book, which was later made into a film about her life.

Her case was taken up by Southall Black Sisters (SBS), an advocacy service for black and Asian women.

“We tried to speak to her lawyers at the time and tried to educate them on her cultural context. Why someone like her would not have found it easy to leave a violent abusive marriage,” the charity’s director, Pragna Patel, says.

But she said the courts “didn’t listen” and the lawyers “weren’t interested” in understanding her cultural background.

Through the continued campaigning and legal work of SBS, Kiranjit’s appeal was accepted in 1992, on the grounds of diminished responsibility.

The court heard new evidence of her long-term depression due to years of violence and abuse.

They accepted the time between the argument and the incident gave Kiranjit enough time to “boil over” rather than “cool down”.

A retrial took place at the Old Bailey, where her plea of manslaughter was accepted. She was sentenced to three years and four months in prison, exactly the amount of time she had already served.

She was released immediately.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Kiranjit Ahluwalia (second from left) holding hands with Pragna Patel (second from right) as she walked free from prison

Her release set a historic precedent – the court accepted that women who are victims of abuse may have more of a “slow-burn” reaction when provoked, rather than an immediate response.

It also sent the message that women who kill as a result of severe domestic violence should not be treated as cold-blooded murderers.

“We managed to change attitudes in our own communities,” Pragna says. “People were embracing Kiranjit and seeing her as a hero, rather than being hostile and ostracising her.

“That was a major moment in the history of women’s struggles against violence in this country, particularly in relation to minority women because it was the first time that minority communities had to reflect, accept and recognise that gender-based violence exists and that some of the way we treat women is partly responsible.”

‘A major moment’

Kiranjit’s appeal remains SBS’s most notable case since it was established 40 years ago.

As the group celebrates its anniversary, it screened the film made about the case, called Provoked, over the weekend as part of the UK Asian Film Festival, which will run across the country until May.

Pragna says the issue of violence against women in minority communities has not decreased. If anything, she says, it seems to have increased.

“Whether that increase is because there are more people reporting the experience of violence or whether it’s because it is on the increase is a difficult question to answer.”

She says welfare cuts mean that it’s more difficult to get resources for these women, and rising racism is making already vulnerable women more worried.

Meanwhile, Kiranjit, who still lives in England, says she’s proud of the way she has rebuilt her life over the last three decades.

“I work hard, I have a job, my sons both graduated and I’m a grandma now.

“Thirty years, you know. It seems like a bad dream.”


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